Cornell senior defensive back Nick Tandy does not like to be told “no.” His recruiters, his body and his background have all dared. Tandy’s soon-to-be alma mater turned him away three times and converted his position twice. No. 25 suffered numerous injuries in high school and during his three years (two active) in Ithaca, an unlikely destination after a precarious situation in his home region of South Florida. But look who’s standing now, as the 5-7, 167-pound playmaker leads the Red with three interceptions in 2011, along with 21 tackles and two pass break ups.
The Birth of Motivation
Originally from Miami-Dade County, Fla., Tandy moved in 2001 with his parents and four siblings to Pompano Beach in Broward County, just north of Fort Lauderdale. Wherever he went, a busy Tandy displayed unique self-motivation from early childhood.
“I’ve always just had this crazy internal drive — it probably started when I was younger,” he said. “I was competitive on the field, and to people’s surprise, I was competitive in the classroom. I always wanted to do my best and I hated losing, or I hated not doing my best, probably more so off the field than on the field. And I felt like once I did my best, I could tap into something else that was another level of being my best, and another level of competitiveness.”
Tandy’s talents weren’t limited to academics and athletics, either. He often traveled as a hip-hop group with his younger brother and sister. The trio, called “Evidence,” formed the production crew of an entertainment company. Tandy and his brother rapped, Tandy’s sister sung and all three danced.
“I was a professional hip-hop dancer from the age of like 13 to 17,” Tandy said. “We toured around Singapore for three weeks, but Florida is where we did most of our shows. We were on The Early Morning Show in 2005, opened for Chris Brown back in 2006 and recorded an album by 2007. So I was doing a lot from a young age. I didn’t just go to school, go to football practice, then come home and do homework. No, it was school, football practice, then write a rap, go to practice for a show coming up [or] hit the road for a show. So I was a busybody to the fullest.”
It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Tandy was also the Great American Student-Athlete of the Year Award winner, the student government treasurer, a member of the National Honor Society and a recipient of the Outstanding Student Leader Award, all at Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach. After his senior football season, he even found time to explore and succeed in track and field.
“I usually had some injury from football that prevented me from competing during the spring. It wasn’t until my senior year that I was healthy enough to do track. I used to do hurdles in middle school, but I wasn’t much taller in high school and the hurdles were a little out of range. So I was like, ‘Coach, I’m not doing the hurdles, man. Let me jump … I can jump — we jump in my family.’ I started the week before Districts and as each week progressed, I got better and better. I ended up making it to states in both the long and triple jump. Coming that far in four weeks was one of the coolest feelings to me.”
Tandy didn’t just qualify for states — he was a semi-finalist in the long jump and medalled in the triple jump. Nonetheless, football remained Tandy’s passion, his guidance ever since playing in the South Florida Youth Football League (SFYFL).
A handful of sports gambling and pay-for-play scandals, like those involving Pete Rose and Cam Newton, have surfaced on the national scene. But a more tragic reality combining both violations is tucked into the SFYFL, a league of over 30,000 children, sometimes tarnishing the careers of players as young as six. Local community members — frequently drug dealers — conspicuously bet on games and certain plays, and often distribute portions of the money to successful players. (For more, see the ESPN Outside the Lines documentary.)
However, Tandy benefited from a stronger support system than many kids, which helped him resist the temptation to accept money as a member of the Pompano Beach Cowboys.
“Although I wasn’t in the best neighborhoods, I wasn’t necessarily in the worst neighborhoods, either,” he said. “However, all of the little league teams I played for were in project areas, so that’s where I spent a lot of my time and that’s where a lot of my friends were … Now I go home and see half of my little league teammates in the county jail, and the rest on the block. I was fortunate to have good-willed coaches and influential parents. I was also lucky to be in a slightly better situation as far as where I lived. My parents sacrificed going into massive debt so that we could live in good areas. It was not worth it financially, but it allowed me to stay focused.”
Although illegal activity tainted some SFYFL players, Tandy believes the league provided encouragement and structure to prevent children from being led astray. Several of Tandy’s role models and idols — including teammate Patrick Peterson, now a cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals — directed his vision towards a more positive future than the ones many people in his area fell into.
“Having [Peterson] on my team was a whole different prototype of athlete. It’s just something you work towards when you see what he is capable of. He would definitely raise the bar for competition on the team. And then at my high school, football was just big — this past year we had three guys go to the NFL from my high school alone.”
A Pleasant Surprise
While the NFL scouts weren’t after Tandy, others did take notice of the small Ely wide receiver who posted 428 yards and three touchdowns as a senior captain, along with 102 rushing yards and a score.
“I was at practice some time during the spring and this guy walked up to me,” Tandy said. “First of all, we had an all-black team, so when old white men came to the field, they were usually scouts for Peterson. But this guy came up with a rusty red hat with a ‘C’ and said he wanted to talk to me. My coach said, ‘Yeah, a guy from Cornell is here to see you,’ and I was like, ‘What the heck is Cornell?’”
Tandy did his research, and fell in love with the school on his first visit to Ithaca. Tandy became only the second person in his family to go to college (his older half-brother played football at Georgetown).
“When I got here on campus, I was like, ‘This is first class.’ It was a higher level of living and something I wasn’t used to, but could possibly be a part of … I’m a first-generation college student and definitely the first person in my family to [garner any interest from] an Ivy League school.”
The possibility of leaving Florida and establishing new networks also attracted Tandy, who at the time knew exclusively about the different Florida schools.
“Actually the teachers used to encourage us to go to Florida schools, but I always wanted to get out of Florida. I saw it as a trap — a lot of people get trapped down there.”
A Series of Rejections
After Tandy’s official visit, the program asked him to commit, but he was the only recruit without a processed financial aid package. Following Peterson’s model, he gave Cornell a “soft verbal” commitment.
“Peterson was going around giving everybody a ‘soft verbal,’ so I thought I could just drop the ‘soft verbal’ … I called back a week later, after the coaches sent me the financial aid package, and said, ‘Coach [Jim Knowles ’87], I got the financial aid package, I want to commit.’ He said there weren’t any slots available.”
A distraught Tandy was also recruited by Lafayette, a private college in Easton, Pa., and several other schools for academics, yet he didn’t want to miss out on the Ivy League opportunity. Tandy applied academically to Cornell, but didn’t get in. With the advice of his recruiting coach, Tandy signed with Lafayette on Signing Day.
“Lafayette was a great school … It’s a different style of learning. You have a small classroom and the teachers teach you, as opposed to here, where during freshman and sophomore year it’s almost all lectures, so you teach yourself.”
However, a double-groin injury forced Tandy to redshirt his freshman year at Lafayette. Still itching to be a part of Cornell, he called one of the Red coaches.
“I remember [Cornell] had said they would support me if I was trying to transfer, but when I called, they said, ‘At this time we are not supporting transfers.’ So I thought, ‘Man, they’re telling me no again — this is three times I’m hearing ‘no.’’”
Tandy decided to give it one last shot. He worked diligently at Lafayette to earn a high grade point average, applied to Cornell as a transfer and got in.
“Once I got in, I knew it was my chance, so I went ahead and told my Lafayette coach that I was transferring and I finally got here.”
Tandy had to sit out for a year when he arrived in Ithaca for three reasons: NCAA transfer rules, recovery from his groin surgery and a subsequent shoulder surgery. At the beginning of last season, Tandy’s junior year and first active year since high school, then-first-year head coach Kent Austin threw him in with the running backs after injuries depleted the Red depth chart. Tandy was most comfortable as a running back, his position from the beginning of high school until his senior year, when a new Ely coach converted him to wide receiver — the position Lafayette chose, as well.
“[The Cornell coaches] had me do running back drills, which is [the position] I felt like I was — that’s what I loved,” he said.
Splitting time with then-freshman running back Grant Gellatly, Tandy finished the 2010 season with 242 rushing yards, 131 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He was named to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District team at the end of the year.
However, cornerback Emani Fenton ’11 and safety Ben Heller ’11 graduated, leaving a hole in the Red secondary for this season. The electric Tandy was a viable candidate to slide in, so running backs coach David Archer called the tailback into his office on April Fools’ Day.
“Coach Archer was like, ‘So what do you think about playing cornerback?’ I said, ‘I’ve never thought about it, why?’ He was like, ‘I think it would be a good position for you … you’re the only guy athletic enough to play corner who isn’t playing corner right now. We’re going to move you to corner.’ Since it was April Fools’ Day I said, ‘Coach, I know you’re playing with me — you’re not serious. This is a prank.’ He basically said to give it a shot and if it didn’t work, I could come back to running back.”
Since Tandy’s days in the SFYFL, he has played center, linebacker, fullback, running back, wide receiver and now cornerback. Tandy admits he was apprehensive about another position change, especially since he hadn’t played defense since eighth grade.
“It was [going to be] my senior year and I finally felt 100 percent healed from my groin surgery and they were trying to make me play cornerback. So I was thinking, ‘I’ve never played cornerback, it’s not going to work, I’m just going to try it for a little bit and they’ll switch me back.’”
During spring practice, Tandy’s knack for the position grew and he even recorded an interception; however, on the same play he suffered a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for the rest of the spring. Tandy thought perhaps an offseason and incoming freshmen would nudge the coaches to return him to running back, but they never did.
“I thought, ‘Alright, they’re not switching me back. I might as well make the most of it and learn this position.’ And that’s what I did.”
Incredibly, Tandy broke his right ring finger, pulled a hamstring and was concussed during one practice in the fall before the 2011 season began. He missed just two games.
“The guys on the team call me ‘The Glass Man,’ because I’m always injuring something. I first respond with ‘I’m still playing though…’ and then tell them to call me ‘Lego Man’ because I fall apart, but end up putting myself back together in time to still play.”
Tandy returned on Oct. 1 in a blowout win over Wagner, 31-7, but he had to wear a pad on his finger for his first couple contests.
“They threw me in the fire in the third game [of the season] against Wagner. Coach Austin said he wanted to see me out there and see me play … Defense is more instinctive. It’s just like, ‘Don’t let the guy catch the ball, don’t let the guy get past you.’”
Tandy recorded four tackles against the Seahawks. Two weeks later at Colgate, he snatched his first of three interceptions on the season. The senior believes experience on the offensive side of the ball hastened his transition to cornerback, as well help from fellow classmate and cornerback Rashad Campbell.
“I didn’t envision [getting three interceptions], but I didn’t put it past myself … I know what kind of offenses are drawn up to beat defenses … I spent a lot of time talking to Rashad as far as how to study film and how to defend different routes. It wasn’t until I got the pad off that I caught my first interception — the first [two] games I couldn’t catch the ball. I’m an offensive player at heart, so I like having the ball in my hands, and if I don’t, I try to go get it.”
Tandy is also enjoying the position more than he anticipated.
“Each week it’s getting more and more fun. It’s so much different than offense.”
One Foot in the Future
An Applied Economics and Management major with a fifth-year option, Tandy does not expect to make a living playing football. He earned a 4.0 GPA in each of his first two semesters at Cornell and plans to graduate in May 2012, depending on whether he can defer certain job offers.
“I’m most worried about getting another concussion because I’m going to earn my money using my brain. I need that — I can’t have that messing with me.”
Tandy, who interned at Google with senior wide receiver Shane Savage over the summer, is seeking a career in either consulting or business strategy. It has been quite a journey from Miami-Dade County, one that defensive coordinator Rob McCrone recently asked Tandy to talk about with the team.
“I didn’t necessarily feel like a leader after transferring because I felt like an outsider — it wasn’t until this year when I got settled in with the defense that I felt more influential. I told [my teammates] how many times I’ve been told ‘no’ in my life, especially with regards to Cornell and with my body telling me ‘no’ and with people telling me, ‘No, you can’t play this certain position.’ And then I showed them how many times I turned around and told them ‘yes.’
Tandy also noted that the end result isn’t always the most exciting part of a mission.
“I’m not going to stop until it’s over. I like to do what I want and I don’t like things stopping me when I feel like achieving a goal is possible, so I do what it takes to get there. Often times I take the harder route rather than the easier route, just because I’m hardheaded. I like to feel like I got it done.”
Original Author: Quintin Schwab